The Last Bear To Jump From The Chest, For Now

Much as I would love to bore you all with further stories drawn from the cunningly carved chest of my folk-tale based research, I fancy that I will, from now on, be keeping the most fascinating results from my recent Madrid sojourn firmly to myself. I am, after all, writing a thesis – and see little benefit in spraying about the wondrous sparkling water of my work well before it reaches publication. It would be tragic, I’m sure you will agree, were some sauntering blog-skulking thief to steal my unique perspective on circular narratives in the Italian folk-tale and sell it the world for his/her own benefit. There is, of course, a burgeoning black market for that sort of thing. Not a day goes by without some desperate academic trawling the web in search of an theory to thieve, especially in the sphere of obscure European literature.

Before leaving this topic behind, however, I ought to pick up on something I neglected to mention last week. You will no doubt remember that I remarked, upon first introducing you to it, the great variety to be found amongst versions of the story we call The Man with the Crop-circle Hands. To quote myself, I noted that: ‘half the versions of this story feature a talking raven, and the other half don’t’ and that ‘one version contains a sub-plot involving a pig who sells his snout to the devil’s daughter’.

This was not a lie. It was not even a fib. Half of the versions do indeed feature a talking raven. A quite vociferous raven. In fact, one is exceedingly relieved to find the bird absent in other examples, although I have similarly little time for his replacement – an insanely chattering housewife going by the name of Frusibella. Luckily, there are a few examples in which both the raven and Frusibella are nowhere to be seen. And it is in one of these that our old friend, the bear, makes an appearance.

Thus it is that one version of The Man with the Crop-circle Hands finds itself into Seth Kinloch’s famous bear folder. But what part, I hear you ask, does the bear play in the story? Is it hiding, again, in a man’s pocket? Or is it camped out in the woods, lying in wait for lonely villagers? Perhaps it might be living in a house, disguised as a blacksmith – or in a field, getting friendly with the donkeys?

The answer, it turns out, is none of these. We don’t know where the bear comes from, or what it is doing in the story at all. All we know is that it strolls into one scene, nearing the end of the story, and says a wise word or two in a language no one really understands. Then it trots off, killing a chicken or two along the way, and humming a song the name of which no one can remember. A most mysterious bear, therefore. But all the more significant, mayhaps, for being so?

Well, indeed.

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The Man with a Bear in his Pocket

Another little something from Kinloch’s aforementioned ‘bear’ folder. This story seems to have been one of Kinloch’s favourites – and it has certainly received its fair share of attention from feminists, Freudians and farmers-turned-literary-critics over the last few years. Like most folk tales it exists in several, slightly different forms. I reproduce an edited version of the so-called ‘1895 text’, a copy of which was owned by Kinloch himself.

One day a stranger came to live in the village. He was not remarkable in any shape or form, except one. He wore a heavy coat, one pocket of which bulged unnaturally. When speaking to people, his hand would sometimes stray into this pocket, often remaining there for a minute or so.

‘It’s money,’ said the men. ‘He is stroking a bag of gold.’ ‘It’s a small rabbit,’ said some of the women. ‘A fairy,’ said some other women. ‘It’s a large pile of nothing,’ said the village idiot. No one listened to him.

One day someone asked the man what it was he kept in his pocket of his. ‘A full grown grizzly bear,’ said the man. ‘Ridiculous,’ they said, ‘a grizzly bear is far too big for that pocket of yours’. He smiled. ‘If you don’t believe me, put your hand in and see’. And so the person – a young lady, as it was – put her hand into his pocket. There came the sound of a faint growl. When she withdrew her arm, her hand was gone. The bear had bitten it off. She was too stunned to scream. She was so stunned, indeed, that she never spoke again, and was unable to tell anyone of her ordeal.

A little later, another person confronted the man. ‘What is it you keep in your pocket?’ they asked – a young boy this time, not more than twelve years old. ‘A full grown grizzly bear,’ replied the man, ‘and if you don’t believe me, put your hand in and see’. The boy did so. There came the sound of a faint growl. When he withdrew his arm, his hand was gone. The bear had bitten it off. He was too stunned to scream. He was so stunned, indeed, that he never spoke again, and was unable to tell anyone of his ordeal.

This happened many times more, until the village was crawling with mute, one-handed citizens. It remained no more than a rumour, all the same, that the man with the bulging pocket was responsible for these accidents. After all, who would believe that a man could keep a full-grown grizzly bear in his pocket? ‘Oh, but it isn’t a bear at all,’ grumbled some. ‘It’s no more than a metal trap. The growl he makes himself, by throwing his voice. That’s all it is.’

Others, however, were not so sure. ‘What is it you keep in your pocket?’ they asked. ‘Put in your hand and see,’ said he – and for some reason they did. And they too lost their hands.

This went on for some time – with many more people losing their hands and voices. One day, the village idiot went up to the man and asked him. ‘What is it you keep in your pocket?’. ‘A full grown grizzly bear,’ replied the man, ‘and if you don’t believe me, put your hand in and see’. ‘No’, said the idiot – ‘why don’t you put your hand in and take it out to show me?’ The man smiled. ‘Fine by me,’ he said, and put his hand into the pocket. He pulled out an inflated pig’s bladder. ‘What else?’ said the idiot. The man put his hand back into his pocket and pulled out a shrunken monkey’s head. ‘What else?’ said the idiot. The man put his hand back into his pocket and pulled out an envelope addressed to the King. ‘What else?’ said the idiot. The man put his hand back into his pocket and pulled out a hundred hands. ‘Thank you,’ said the idiot – ‘you have been most kind. To show I am grateful let me shake you by the hand’. ‘Fine by me,’ said the man, and the idiot shook his hand off. He was so stunned he never spoke again. One year later he was mauled by a grizzly bear. His body was buried by the side of a palm tree.

Bears With Me

The deep forests of my head are populated by bears. Bears, bears, everywhere.

A bear eating from a tree – as represented by this statue –  is the symbol of Madrid. Quite why I cannot recall. Nor can I remember exactly why Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists, have spent much of their career dressed up as a bear and a rat and wandering about like so. Needless to say, they have: and their work in this mode is, at present, at view in Madrid (in the Reina Sofia). It’s well worth examining.

There are, however, other reasons why bears have crept into my head and pushed their hairy paws through the dustbins of my thought. I travelled to Madrid, of course, to engage in a little research on my longrunning European folktales project. My goal was the papers of Professor Seth Kinloch, the Scottish collector, who lived in the Spanish capital from 1941 to 1972. He too, it seems, was fond of bears – and found plenty of bear-related material to interest him in the wide world of the European folktale. Indeed, he dedicated one of the largest folders in his collection to ‘bear stories’: a folder which contains no less than four hundred tales in which bears, in one shape or another, take an active part.

Why the interest in bears? Was it anything to do with Madrid, his adopted home, or might it have had something to do with the fact that Kinloch, by all accounts, looked somewhat like a bear? One friend described him thus: ‘His panda eyes reminded us that he slept little; his broad and hairy chest reminded us that we ought never to question this way of working’. Kinloch’s physical stature is almost always mentioned: it was impossible to ignore. Whilst we may never know the height of his rival Stanley Pleeber; Kinloch was overkeen in mentioning the fact that he measured exactly seven foot. We also know a strange amount about his eyebrows; one of which he left to his secretary in his will; the other of which followed him, willingly or otherwise, to the grave. Having seen the former – now preserved in the Kinloch archives – I can assure the reader that it is, as eyebrows go, exceedingly ‘bear-like’.

I am neither interested, nor capable, of summarising the function of bears in Kinloch’s collected tales. However, I would like to briefly mention a series of popular Hungarian stories featuring a wandering bear who breaks into the homes of peasants and threatens to eat their children if they don’t tell him a good story. The framing device is, as you can see, not dissimilar to that of the Arabian Nights, except that this bear – unlike the Arabian King – is a harsh critic, and always ends up consuming the kids. Either that, or the beast is a dirty liar and enjoys the stories greatly, only to discover that (despite the opinion of some) Art does not assuage one’s appetite. Wonderful as a good story is, one needs a good square meal to survive.

Should one go the other way, yet, and claim that the bear was correct: that the stories aren’t good enough, what we are left with is a remarkable piece of self-criticism: a set of stories in which the authors regularly remind their readers of the fact that they aren’t much good at what they’re doing. In one sense, this renders the entire series redundant, making it a sort of anti-Arabian Nights – a tribute to the near impossibility of perfect storytelling.

Or maybe bears are just hard to please.